Neither team was supposed to be there.
When the 2001 college football season began, LSU was generating a little buzz, but only enough to get the Bayou Bengals ranked No. 14 in the AP poll and No. 17 by the coaches in the ESPN/USA Today poll. As for Illinois -- well, no one was expected much from the Fighting Illini, who had gone 5-6 the previous year and ended the 2000 campaign with a 61-23 drubbing at the hands of Northwestern.
LSU had not been to a BCS bowl in 15 years, a streak that began before the BCS had come into being. For Illinois, it had been even longer; the Illini had been to the Rose Bowl in 1984 and could claim only mid-tier games like the Peach Bowl, Citrus Bowl and MicronPC.com Bowl in the interim.
As late as Oct. 14, when neither team appeared in the Top 25, there were no indications that they would soon play in a Sugar Bowl that would shatter records.
When the polls came out Oct. 14, Illinois was an unexceptional 5-1. The wins had come against Cal, Northern Illinois (by 5!), Louisville, Minnesota and Indiana. The loss was a 45-20 waxing at Michigan. Showdowns with No. 20 Northwestern and No. 24 Purdue loomed, and the date with Ohio State could hardly be overlooked. But Illinois, whose loss to Michigan had come Sept. 29, just kept winning. Through October, then into November and until a 34-28 victory against Northwestern, capping off a 10-1 regular season. By then, the Wolverines had lost two conference games, and the Illini were Big Ten champions.
Mid-November found LSU 3-2, with wins against Tulane, Utah State and Kentucky, a narrow loss at Tennessee and a 44-15 annihilation against Florida in the Bayou. Richard from And The Valley Shook:
After a close win against Kentucky, a blowout of MSU, and a loss to a young Eli Manning-led Ole Miss team, the Nick Saban era was on the brink. To that point, Nick Saban was 12-8 as the LSU coach including a loss to UAB. We went into Tuscaloosa without high hopes, but Rohan Davey and Josh Reed had a record-setting day that started the team on a hot streak that ended with LSU being arguably the best team in the country at the end of the season.
In fact, the Ole Miss loss would be the Tigers' last. They went on to defeat Middle Tennessee State, edge Arkansas and dispatch with Auburn to set up an SEC title game tilt with Tennessee, where the Bengals were given no chance. LSU was ranked a lowly No. 20 by ESPN/USA Today (21 according to AP) and were expected to be just another scalp for the No. 2 Volunteers en route to Tennessee's shot at Phil Fulmer's second national championship.
Instead, the Tigers outscored Tennessee 21-3 in the second half, won the game 31-20 and headed to the Sugar Bowl to play Illinois. LSU had now moved up to No. 12, and the Illini were sitting at No. 7. It was not foolish to expect a good game.
And 81 points, 958 yards and 14 Sugar Bowl records later, it was clear that no who had expected a good game was disappointed. LSU led 34-7 at the half, but Illinois stormed back to narrow the gap to 47-34. Richard again:
I watched the game at the apartment of my buddy Mark Chiasson, who would later go on to donate part of his liver to his first-born child, who became one of the youngest liver transplant patients in history. That child wasn't born yet and is now 4 years old. I later learned that if they had not done the transplant that day, it would have been too late the next day. That's merely an interesting aside.
The game was billed as LSU's potent passing game versus Illinois' very good secondary. That matchup ended up being a mismatch as LSU passed all over the Illinois defense and scored at will, especially in the first half. The game looked like a rout, but Illinois didn't quit. Our defense, led by Bradie James who now plays for the Dallas Cowboys, had been solid if unspectacular throughout the season but really struggled that day, and Illinois was abe to get back in it in the second half.
Most Outstanding Player Rohan Davey was 31-of-53 for 444 yards and 3 TDs -- the completions and yardage were Sugar Bowl records -- while Josh Reed caught a Sugar Bowl-record 14 passes for a Sugar Bowl-record 239 receiving yards. Davey and Reed's yardage totals were also BCS records.
Another guy stood out by setting the game's mark for points -- 24 off of four rushing TDs, part of a 122-yard day. His last score came with LSU leading 41-28 with 8:39 left.
Running back Domanick Davis, one of the great underrated running backs in LSU history, sealed the game ... His NFL career was cut short by injuries, and is marked by being a footnote. He is the running back that made the Texans pass on Reggie Bush in 2006. He promptly injured his hip and never played again.
For Illinois, the defeat was the beginning of a long downfall. Ron Turner's remaining teams went 5-7, 1-11 and 3-8 before he was replaced by Ron Zook. The Illini would not return to the postseason until facing Southern Cal the 2008 Rose Bowl, a game in which they were never really competitive.
It LSU's first Sugar Bowl win since defeating Wyoming in 1968 and put the Tigers into the Top 10 at No. 7. And while Nick Saban would follow up the 10-win season with an 8-win campaign in 2002, it was clear that he was assembling something special in Baton Rouge. LSU would claim a national title after the 2003 season.
How important was the Sugar Bowl? While it might have proven to those outside the Bengals' cheering section that their SEC crown was legitimate, Richard argues that other games were more significant in the course of that year.
The game itself was exciting, but the game that meant the most to LSU that year was the SEC Championship against Tennessee and earlier the regular season game against Alabama in Tuscaloosa. ...
If not for that Alabama win and the confidence it gave us going through the rest of the season, LSU would not be LSU now and Nick Saban would probably be coaching a MAC team.